The benefits of yoga are well documented. Pick up any publication from a woman’s magazine to the Costco flyer, or the Harvard Medical School Guide To Yoga and you are sure to find a lengthy list of validated benefits. For example, The Harvard Medical School Guide lists four pages of benefits. They state yoga has been scientifically proven to help build endurance and strength, improve flexibility and balance, improve sleep, improve the immune system, relieve stress, improve mood, create a more flexible mind, build self esteem and confidence, and the list goes on and on.
There is data that suggests yoga helps with just about everything including depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and more. Often when stating the benefits of yoga, I begin to feel a bit like a snake-oil salesman. Yet, beyond the obvious benefits of yoga, lie the real jewels. Most of the time it isn’t until a student has stepped away from their practice for a period of time that they realize the effect of yoga.
Maybe it’s the feeling of being “out of sorts” or more “on edge”. Usually, students report feeling “off” and then something clicks and they remember that when they went to yoga they were a “nicer” person. Through a regular yoga practice, one cultivates a sense of awareness. This sense of awareness allows one to sit in the not knowing versus getting caught up in the emotion of the moment, or the guy who just cut you off in traffic, or your boss who asked you to do something in an unrealistic time frame, or your mother in law commenting on your pot roast.
This sense of awareness leads to insight. Yoga gives us the ability to observe the changing states of the mind, without getting lost in them. It’s as if yoga interjects a bit of space between the thoughts. It’s that little gap between the stimulus and the response. In that tiny moment, you have a choice. No longer controlled by a knee jerk reaction, you can choose how you respond, and in that choice is freedom. Suffering could be considered as being attached to each and every thought of the mind. By cultivating a sense of awareness within, you are no longer trapped by old thoughts or narratives that no longer serve you.
In yoga, you learn to focus your attention on where you choose. As we say, “where your focus goes, energy flows.” This isn’t a new concept. It’s been around since the Bible, “Seek and you shall find.” Yet many of us spend so much time focusing on what we don’t want, gripped by the tyranny of thoughts that don’t serve us. If yoga can teach you to put your focus on what you want to have, you’re halfway home.
Most people think of yoga as a series of physical poses, or postures. But the real magic is what lies beneath the poses. It is what happens underneath the poses where the true transformational aspects of yoga lie. It is learning to stay with a sensation for one breath longer when you start to feel your thigh shake or breathing through a disempowering narrative. When you hear that incessant little voice in your head ask, “Who do you think you are, you can’t do it…” and then you try anyways and achieve your big dream.
Yoga gives you the opportunity to break down old outdated beliefs and patterns of holding in the body. That’s when the tension can begin to dissipate. Layers of stress drop away and old habitual patterns dissolve, The nervous system is balanced and pure potentiality opens up. That’s when you begin to experience yourself in a far greater way than maybe ever before. That’s the true benefit of yoga.
Leanne Woehlke is the owner of Epic Yoga in Nashville and Brentwood.